The wide open spaces of the American West were never more wide or more open than in this 1955 movie adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!," even if the spaces were filmed in Arizona and New México instead of the movie's namesake.
"Oklahoma!" is one of America's most important musicals for several reasons. Most notably, it contains a surplus of memorable songs and tunes that are instantly recognizable and that people have loved for generations. It was the first collaboration between Richard Rodgers, who wrote the music, and Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote the book and lyrics, a team that would go on to do such classics as "State Fair," "Carousel," "The King and I," "South Pacific," "Flower Drum Song," and "The Sound of Music." And "Oklahoma!" is credited as being the first musical in which all of the songs and dances were directly related to the story's action. You'll get some argument from "Showboat" fans about that, but "Oklahoma!," first presented on Broadway in 1943, is generally regarded as the father of the modern stage musical.
The story is set in Oklahoma Territory in the late 1890s and involves two simultaneous love triangles. The first romance concerns a charming cowboy, Curly McLain (Gordon MacRae), a spunky young farm woman, Laurey Williams (Shirley Jones), and a surly hired hand, Jud Fry (Rod Steiger). You can tell just by their names who you're supposed to root for. Coincident with their ups and downs, we have the relationship of another cowhand, Will Parker (Gene Nelson), another young farm woman, Ado Annie Carnes (Gloria Grahame), and a good-timin' Persian peddler, Ali Hakim (Eddie Albert). Most of the action is done in light, pleasant fun, with the exception of the Jud Fry character, who seems to inhabit a different movie entirely.
The songs tell the tale, actually. Things begin on a bright, clear morning with Curly on horseback riding over to call on Laurey and singing "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'." He's in high spirits because he's about to ask Laurey to the annual community auction, the social event of the year. When he arrives at Laurey's farm, he brags about "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top" that he's going to get just for her. However, things dim when poor Curly learns that Laurey has already accepted a ride to the social with hired-hand Jud.
Meanwhile, in town, Will has just returned from the big city, singing about how "Everything's Up to Date in Kansas City." Then we switch to Ado Annie, who has just learned about the joys of kissing and hugging and such, singing "I Cain't Say No." Well, you get the idea, so I'll just remind you of a few of the other songs: "Many a New Day," "People Will Say We're in Love," "Pore Jud is Daid" (one of my favorites), an extended dream and dance sequence, "The Farmer and the Cowman," "All Er Nuthin'," and the big climactic song we've all been waiting for, "Oklahoma!"
As I say, it's all very winsome and sweet, although the casting presents a couple of odd choices. Gordon MacRae is excellent, a veteran singer with a big, pleasing voice; and Shirley Jones in her very first movie appearance equals him in a winning performance. But Gloria Grahame as Ado Annie is a minor distraction. Her character is supposed to be about Laurey's age, late teens, maybe twenty; yet Grahame was in her mid thirties at the time and, in fact, was already famous for her roles in noir mysteries of the 1940s. It's clearly a leap for her to embody the naive if precocious Annie. Then there's Eddie Albert as the traveling salesman; he's supposed to be Persian, but his accent slides all over the place, often sounding like Chico Marx's fractured Italian.
Most problematic of all, though, is Rod Steiger's Jud, a pathetic thug obsessed with Laurey. The actor is so good, so serious, so earnest in the role, that his character comes off better suited to "On the Waterfront" or "Capone." The fact is, Steiger was a great dramatic actor, and his bullying Jud Fry is so convincing a heavy that it takes something away from the otherwise lighthearted nature of the show. I wonder if this doesn't also have something to do with the movie's being the first musical Fred Zinnemann ever directed, some of his other films being "High Noon," "From Here To Eternity," "A Man for All Seasons," and "The Day of the Jackel." Maybe Zinnemann just couldn't resist throwing in a serious dramatic touch.
There's also the fact that the movie is a tad too long for its material, and things start to sag a bit toward the middle where inspiration begins to flag. But Zinnemann manages to keep the pace moving in the right direction, and any small concerns one may have diminish quickly in light of the rest of the movie's delights. The cinematography by noted cameraman Robert Surtees and an uncredited Floyd Crosby is a pleasure to the eyes; the acting is mostly frothy and blithe (with the exception of the aforementioned Steiger, who is strange and moody); and the songs and music are as engaging as ever.
Talk about expense: Fox actually filmed "Oklahoma!" twice, in 70 mm Todd-AO for its roadshow release in 1955 and also in 35 mm CinemaScope for its regular theatrical run in 1956. In a theater the Todd-AO would have shown up at a 2.20:1 ratio and the CinemaScope at 2.55:1, but it was the Todd-AO that would have had the sharper, clearer image, thanks to its larger, 70 mm film stock. Very generously, the Fox studios provide both versions in this set, one movie on each of two discs, for comparison purposes.
Viewers will make up their own minds about which version of the film they prefer. The differences include not only the inevitable variations in picture quality but some variations in the opening titles, the opening scene, the performances, and a good number of peripheral details. The thing that interested me, though, was that I preferred the CinemaScope transfer best. The colors seemed more vivid and vibrant. In Todd-AO the colors are slightly more subdued and the overall definition a little softer, at times seeming more blurred. I suppose you could say the Todd-AO rendition is more natural in its way, less glorified and more realistic; but with a big splashy musical like "Oklahoma!" I favored the showier, more outgoing hues of the CinemaScope presentation.
Fox engineers have transferred both versions of the movie to disc at a high bit rate in anamorphic widescreen, the CinemaScope measuring across my television at about 2.30:1 and the Todd-AO at a little over 2:1. The CinemaScope presentation has a total running time of 140 minutes; the Todd-AO presentation has a running time of 147 minutes. The music for an overture, an intermission, and an exit would appear to account for the additional Todd-AO minutes.
The sound comes in Dolby Digital 5.0 Surround or Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. I strongly advise the 5.0 Surround. It's one of the best older soundtracks I've heard. There is no edge or brightness involved whatever, as there can be in many such soundtracks of the era. The sonic image is spread very widely across the front channels, with good clarity and shape and quite natural-sounding vocals. Bass is more than adequate when it is needed, and the dynamics can sometimes impart a startling impact. There is not much in the way of rear-channel activity except a touch of musical ambiance enhancement, but it's enough to provide a realistic perspective to the tunes.
In honor of the film's 50th Anniversary, Fox have given it the deluxe treatment in a two-disc special edition set. Disc one contains the CinemaScope version of the movie, along with an audio commentary by Ted Chapin, president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, and Hugh Fordin, author and film historian. The two men show an obvious love for the film and if their comments are not exactly scintillating, they are informative. In addition, disc one contains a selection of songs only, some karaoke-type sing-along subtitles, a widescreen theatrical teaser, and forty scene selections, but no chapter insert with my copy. English is all you'll get for a spoken language, but the disc does offer English and Spanish subtitles.
Disc two contains the Todd-AO version of the movie, along with an audio commentary by Shirley Jones, costar of the film, and Nick Redman, film and music historian. I found this commentary more entertaining of two in the set, thanks mainly to Ms. Jones's reminiscences, descriptions, and explanations. Redman has the good sense to keep the commentary mostly an interview with Ms. Jones: to ask a few questions and step out of the way. It's an enjoyable experience.
Additionally, disc two contains several short Todd-AO featurettes. The first is "CinemaScope Vs. Todd-AO," a twelve-minute comparison of the two screen formats. That's followed by "The Miracle of Todd-AO," an eleven-minute short created as a cofeature for "Oklahoma!" to show off the Todd-AO process. It's filled with first-person roller-coaster rides, mountain flights, ski runs, and automobile trips. The third featurette is "The March of Todd-AO," a sixteen-minute travelogue much like the preceding one but with a more patriotic bent. Finally, we've got two vintage stage performances from "Oklahoma!" performed on live television in 1954: "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" by Gordon MacRae and "People Will Say We're in Love" by Gordon MacRae and Florence Henderson. Disc two concludes with a set of sing-along subtitles; two photo galleries, one of behind-the-scenes materials, the other of lobby cards; a widescreen theatrical teaser and trailer; a song-only chapter list; and forty-four scene selections.
The folks at Fox issued the 50th Anniversary Edition of "Oklahoma" in their "Rodgers and Hammerstein Collection," which also includes two-disc sets of "State Fair" and "The Sound of Music."
"Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," Oh, What a Beautiful Film.